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In downtown N.Y. pet stores, predators sell


NEW YORK - Cockfighting has mostly disappeared and bear baiting, once the rage of 19th-century America, has gone the way of the frontier.

But New Yorkers still love their predatory pets.

From the red devil and Jack Dempsey fish to the yellow rat snake and Tokay gecko, pet store managers across the city say animals with a taste for the jugular are big sellers.

Perhaps New Yorkers are so stressed at the end of the day they want to see something get torn apart. Maybe residents long for a bit of the wild in their concrete jungle. Whatever the explanation, the more urban you get, the more likely you are to want your pet to be a highly specialized killer.

"I've noticed that, usually, in the city it is the more aggressive pets people are looking for," said Sean Johnson, the assistant manager of a Petland Discounts store in midtown, where stickers on the tanks declare, "Want mean fish? We're mean fish!"

Michael Cherry has been with Petland Discounts for 16 years. He has worked in stores in Brooklyn and Manhattan and is now the manager of the Petland shop in Danbury, Conn. He says people in the suburbs like their pets pretty, not predatory.

"Up here, you have more people with houses rather than apartments and they just want to look at something beautiful," Cherry said. "In the city, they get home and into their small apartments and they want to get out some aggression."

And it's more than the tiny living spaces.

"When you have a problem with your boss you can't jump out of your chair and strangle him," said Augustine Rodriguez, 44, of Brooklyn, who is a keeper of Oscars, or Astronotus ocellatus, a particularly voracious fish. "But I can put some goldfish in the bowl and watch my fish try and tear them up."

Problem in past

New Yorkers' affection for rough animals has been a problem in the past. In the late 1980s, pit bulls made headlines when some owners trained them to be especially vicious to take part in dogfights, usually to the death. Sometimes the dogs set upon a helpless child or adult.

But pet store salespeople say their customers prefer pets that kill their natural prey, not dogs trained to attack humans. An added plus is that the violence unleashed by predator pets is usually confined to their tanks.

Within the city, neighborhoods matter. Johnson said that on the Upper West Side people like fish that play nice.

Cherry had a simpler explanation. "The lower you go on Manhattan, the more aggressive you get," he said. In the poorer neighborhoods of Queens and the Bronx, he continued, the more vicious the animal, the better it sells.

Both Cherry and Johnson suggested that the Petland Discounts on Willoughby Street in Brooklyn might be the epicenter of predatory pets. In that store, Cherry said, "anything that liked blood you would sell."

Marcel James, the manager of the Willoughby Street store, took no offense at the suggestion. "People actually come in just to watch me feed the animals," he said. "New York is an aggressive place. You have to fight for what you want." Therefore, he reasoned, people like their pets to be fighters as well.

Steven Rodriguez, 23, was in the store shopping for a snake that he said would provide some action. James' description of the Chinese corn snake sounded good: It can grow to 4 feet long and it likes to smell its prey before wrapping itself around it and swallowing it head first.

In the Willoughby store, a crowd favorite is feeding time for Gardner snakes. A bowl of goldfish is placed in the reptile tank.

The Gardners like to perch above the bowl before swooping down. Because their eyesight is poor and they can't smell well under water, they have to swing their head back and forth, feeling for a tasty treat.

Theo Walker, a chauffeur who was shopping in the Willoughby Street store, said that when he has driven a particularly unpleasant passenger, he likes to unwind with his fish.

Walker grew animated - making attacking motions with hands - when he talked about his ferocious, beloved pets. Especially the Jewels (Hemichromis guttatus).

"It's like having a pit bull," he said enthusiastically. "Throw a goldfish in there and they will tear it up."

Dr. Paul V. Loiselle, the curator for fresh water fish at the New York Aquarium, said it was understandable why people develop such an attachment to fish-eating fish.

"You like it when your dog or cat pays attention to you because you open the dog or cat food," he said. "The same is true for these fish." Then there's good looks and brains. "They are large fish and they are brightly colored and they are quite capable of recognizing their owner," Loiselle said.

Among the most popular "mean" fish are Jack Dempseys, Red Devils, Oscars, Jewels and Convicts. All eat guppies, minnows, goldfish and other feeder fish. An Oscar will give chase and usually swallow the feeder fish whole. If the feeder is too big to swallow, it will settle for the head.

The reptiles have more varied hunting styles. The Tokay gecko is nocturnal. It prefers to creep up on its prey and then pounce, like a snake.

The Bearded Dragon lizard is admired by its owners for the large amount of spiky skin beneath its chin that puffs up like a beard when in attack mode, creating a Jurassic appearance. Fully grown they can be 2 feet long and eat an entire baby mouse, known in killer pet circles as a "pinkie."

Black-market pets

Then there are the black-market pets. One young New Yorker admitted to owning an illegal tarantula. He said it made a good pet because it afforded him the chance to have an Animal Planet scene unfold in his living room every evening.

"I think the fascination stems from the fact that most predatory creatures are highly specialized," he said. "When you watch a predator take down its natural prey, you are witnessing nature at some of its most dynamic and efficient work. It goes beyond having a pet that you just watch sit around."

Kathryn Strickland at the American Humane Society said her organization does not keep statistics on predatory pets. Amy Kimmel, director of public relations for Petland Discounts, said the company did not compile data on who buys what type of animal or what sells better at individual stores.

But it seems safe to say, based on interviews with a dozen pet store managers inside and outside the city, that suburbanites are less likely to be looking for a pet that can complete a successful attack on an unsuspecting pinkie.

"I can't even feed the snakes here when customers are in the store," said Caroline Sylvester, manager of Petland Discounts in Norwalk, Conn. "They have gone so far as to call Animal Control. It's nothing you don't see on Discovery. I don't know why they panic."

Sylvester also said suburbanites don't particularly care for the killer fish. "The fancy goldfish - $20, $30, $40 apiece - are very popular." Her customers' tastes run more to the soft and cuddly. "Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers are big and chinchillas are huge," she said. "If they don't wear them on their back, they have them as pets."

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